- The Washington Times - Monday, May 13, 2013

President Obama on Monday angrily denied a cover-up by his administration in downplaying the role of terrorism in the deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and accused Republican lawmakers of carrying out a partisan “sideshow” by investigating it.

Asserting “there’s no ‘there’ there,” Mr. Obama dismissed concerns about his aides’ editing of the “talking points” that offered the administration’s earliest public explanation for the attack that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. The president said he and his administration acknowledged immediately that the attack was an act of terrorism.

“The whole issue of … talking points, frankly, throughout this process has been a sideshow,” Mr. Obama said at a White House news conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron. “And the fact that this keeps on getting churned out, frankly, has a lot to do with political motivations.”

But for weeks after the attack and at the height of his re-election campaign in which Mr. Obama boasted that he had al Qaeda “on the run,” the president and his aides repeatedly downplayed terrorism as an explanation, citing instead mob provocation to the trailer to an anti-Islam movie produced in the U.S.

The president’s statements incorporating that story in September included TV appearances on “60 Minutes” and “The View,” as well as a speech to the U.N. General Assembly.

• When asked on “60 Minutes” on Sept. 12 whether Benghazi was a terrorist attack, Mr. Obama said “it’s too early to know exactly how this came about, what group was involved, but obviously it was an attack on Americans.”

• When asked during a taping of “The View” on Sept. 24 whether the Benghazi attack was terrorism, the president said only, “There’s no doubt that [with] the kind of weapons that were used, the ongoing assault, that it wasn’t just a mob action.”

• The next day, in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly, Mr. Obama still portrayed the Benghazi attack and other protests in the Arab world as responses to the anti-Islam movie.

Republicans said Mr. Obama’s explanations Monday ignored administration emails that show, from the earliest moments after the Sept. 11 attack, that the CIA identified groups associated with al Qaeda for carrying out the assault with heavy weaponry, including mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. The references to terrorists were scrubbed from the administration’s talking points after State Department personnel expressed concerns in exchanges with White House officials.

Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, called Mr. Obama’s latest comments “revisionist history” and contradicted by testimony from, among others, Gregory N. Hicks, the second-ranking U.S. diplomat in Libya at the time.

“The president can’t have it both ways,” Mr. Issa said on Fox News. “He can’t say that he’s always been honest and then in fact have people such as Ambassador Stevens himself, in real time as he’s being attacked, saying to his No. 2, ‘Greg, we’re under attack.’ Or Gregory Hicks himself telling the operations center at State within minutes that it’s a terrorist attack and he knew from the get-go it was.”

Wave of scandals

Mr. Obama gave his prickly defense of Benghazi after a weekend when his second-term agenda seemed to be in danger of being swamped by scandal.

Right on the heels of a congressional hearing into the diplomats’ deaths, the Internal Revenue Service acknowledged that some auditors gave heightened scrutiny to applications for tax-exempt status from tea party and other conservative groups during the 2012 campaign season.

The president, who said the accusations would be “outrageous” if proved, told reporters that he learned of the IRS controversy Friday from news reports. Senior IRS officials knew of the targeting of conservative groups since at least mid-2011, according to a preliminary inspector general’s report to be released this week.

After the news conference Monday, The Associated Press reported that the Justice Department secretly obtained the AP’s telephone records for more than two months last spring, prompting AP’s top executive to send a letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. accusing Justice of a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” on journalists.

The news conference was Mr. Obama’s first since the House hearing last week on Benghazi, in which State Department officials said their pleas for extra security were ignored before the attacks and their calls for military reinforcements during the assault were rejected. After the congressional hearing, news reports detailed the administration’s efforts to cleanse references to terrorism from its talking points on the attacks.

The president tried to explain those efforts Monday as a natural symptom of the fog of war.

“Immediately after this event happened, we were not clear who exactly had carried it out, how it had occurred, what the motivations were,” Mr. Obama said. “It happened at the same time as we had seen attacks on U.S. embassies in Cairo as a consequence of this [anti-Islam] film. And nobody understood exactly what was taking place during the course of those first few days.”

Mr. Obama also said Monday that he acknowledged Benghazi was the result of terrorism in his earliest response to the attack, on Sept. 12. In the White House Rose Garden, Mr. Obama said at the time that “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation.”

However, the only specific reference to Benghazi called it “that attack,” and the word “terrorism” was in a general tribute to U.S. veterans and the 9/11 anniversary.

But after the president’s “60 Minutes” appearance Sept. 12, he and other senior administration officials declined to call the attack the work of terrorists. U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice linked the Benghazi assault to the Internet video when she appeared on Sunday news shows Sept. 16.

Mr. Obama said Monday that he “sent up” Matthew Olson, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, to Congress on Sept. 19 to tell lawmakers that the Americans in Benghazi “were killed in the course of a terrorist attack on our embassy.”

“If this was some effort on our part to try to downplay what had happened, or tamp it down, that would be a pretty odd thing that three days later we end up putting out all the information that in fact has now served as the basis for everybody recognizing that this was a terrorist attack,” Mr. Obama said. “Who executes some sort of cover-up or effort to tamp things down for three days? The whole thing defies logic.”

Mr. Olson made the comment under questioning. It didn’t appear in his prepared testimony.

Mr. Obama then made his appearance on “The View.” He didn’t mention terrorism as the likely motive in front of an international audience at the U.N. General Assembly’s annual gathering, but repeated the claim that the attack was incited by the YouTube video.

“There is no speech that justifies mindless violence,” Mr. Obama said at the United Nations. “There are no words that excuse the killing of innocents. There’s no video that justifies an attack on an embassy.”

Political anger

In his news conference Monday, the president accused congressional Republicans of imperiling other U.S. diplomats around the globe by distracting the government’s focus from more important security issues.

“We’ve had folks who have challenged [former Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton’s integrity, Susan Rice’s integrity, Mike Mullen and Tom Pickering’s integrity; it’s a given that mine gets challenged by these same folks,” Mr. Obama said. “They’ve used it for fundraising and frankly, you know, if anybody out there wants to actually focus on how we make sure something like this does not happen again, I am happy to get their advice and information and counsel.”

Of the Americans who were killed, he said, “We dishonor them when, you know, we turn things like this into a political circus.”

Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John A Boeher, Ohio Republican, said the president is spinning a tale that doesn’t fit the facts.

“The president may want Americans to believe there’s no “‘there’ there,” but he can’t hide from the facts,” Mr. Buck wrote in a blog post. “After four Americans died at the hands of terrorists, the administration was less than up front about how it happened and they continue to deny requests for further disclosures. House Republicans are determined to get to the truth and make sure such a tragedy will never happen again.”

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